The BEST Time to Be an Engineer is Now!

By gmcnevin
May 20th, 2015 in Alumni, Awards, Events, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Graduate Student Opportunities, Graduate Students, News-CE, News-EP, News-IDS, Recognition, Research, Students, Uncategorized.

College of Engineering Celebrates New Graduates

By Jan A. Smith

Graduate Convocation speaker Farzad Kamalabadi (ECE, MS'94, PhD'01) professor of ECE and Statistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), exhorted the new masters and PhD graduates to combine science with policy work.

Graduate Convocation speaker Farzad Kamalabadi (ECE, MS’94, PhD’01) professor of ECE and Statistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), exhorted the new masters and PhD graduates to combine science with policy work.

There has never been a better time to be an engineer, because society has never needed these skills more urgently. This was the overarching message in speeches delivered at the College of Engineering’s undergraduate and graduate Commencement ceremonies on May 16.
In the morning, Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen welcomed the 268 graduating seniors and their families by acknowledging their accomplishment in completing what he described as the most challenging curriculum at Boston University.

“The single most important skill in life is the ability to work really hard,” he said. “There isn’t a student in any other college on this campus who has worked as hard as you to earn your place at today’s commencement. Now begins the opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and move society forward.”


The College of Engineering awarded 268 undergraduate degrees on May 16th. At a separate ceremony in the afternoon, Dean Ken Lutchen presented 68 Master of Science and 60 Master of Engineering degrees, and presided over the hooding of 18 PhD students.

Atri Raychowdhury (ECE’15), past Class of 2015 president and this year’s BU IEEE student chapter vice president, echoed this sentiment in his student address. He exhorted all to keep their passion for engineering strong. “Let us use our education to solve the Grand Challenges of society. This truly is our responsibility as Societal Engineers,” he noted to resounding cheers. “The end of our time here marks the beginning of a new journey.”

“Now is the best and most exciting time to be an engineer,” said Commencement speaker Dr. Angela M. Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy at MIT’s Biological Engineering Laboratory and leader of a research team that engineers viruses to grow and assemble materials for energy, electronics and medicine. “From clean energy and the environment to healthcare, education, food and water, there has never been a time when we have had more opportunities to make an impact.”

Belcher, who founded Cambros Technologies and Siluria Technologies, has been cited by Rolling Stone, Time and Scientific American for her work’s impact on society.

Dean Lutchen presented Department Awards for Teaching Excellence to asst. professor Ahmad Khalil (BME), lecturer Osama Alshaykh (ECE) and assoc. professor Raymond Nagem (ME), who also received Outstanding Professor of the Year Award. The Faculty Service Award went to professor Joyce Wong (BME).

Later in the day, Lutchen presented 68 Master of Science and 60 Master of Engineering degrees, and presided over the hooding of 18 PhD students.

Farzad Kamalabadi (ECE, MS’94, PhD’01) professor of ECE and Statistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), exhorted the new masters and PhD graduates to combine science with policy work. “The world faces multiple problems of diminishing resources, which are all intertwined with social and economic stability,” he said. “You are poised to address these vital questions from a fresh, solutions-oriented perspective. But you can’t do it from within the scientific community alone. We need more engineers in Washington, Brussels, and the other policy centers of the world. It is crucial that the engineering leaders of the future – you – play central roles in social policy.”

Dean’s Catalyst Awards Fund Promising, Early-Stage Projects

By gmcnevin
May 20th, 2015 in Awards, Faculty, Grants, News-IDS, Recognition, Research, Research-IDS.

By Mark Dwortzan

Picture of a hoarder's room. With Dean's Catalyst Award funding, Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Associate Professor Jordana Muroff (SSW) plan to develop an objective, automatic, image-based, real-time hoarding assessment algorithm running on a smartphone or tablet.

Picture of a hoarder’s room. With Dean’s Catalyst Award funding, Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Associate Professor Jordana Muroff (SSW) plan to develop an objective, automatic, image-based, real-time hoarding assessment algorithm running on a smartphone or tablet.

The College of Engineering has funded four new projects through the Dean’s Catalyst Award (DCA) grant program, each focused on technologies that promise to make a significant impact on society. ENG and collaborating faculty will receive $40,000 per project to develop novel techniques to advance these technologies.


Early result of automatic detection of clutter in the same room (red stars denote clutter; blue circles denote non-clutter). The severity of hoarding disorder is judged based on clutter.

Established by Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen in 2007 and organized by a faculty committee, the annual DCA program encourages early-stage, innovative, interdisciplinary projects that could spark new advances in a variety of engineering fields. By providing each project with seed funding, the awards give full-time faculty the opportunity to develop collaborations and generate initial proof-of-concept results that could help secure external funding.

This year’s DCA-winning projects could yield new applications in healthcare and energy.

Professor Janusz Konrad (ECE) and Associate Professor Jordana Muroff (SSW) will explore ways to automate the assessment of hoarding, a complex psychiatric disorder and public health problem characterized by persistent difficulty and distress associated with discarding of possessions. Current assessment methods of hoarding are subjective and time-consuming, as they require patients and/or clinicians to complete questionnaires or select images. To overcome these drawbacks, Konrad and Muroff plan to develop an objective, automatic, image-based, real-time hoarding assessment algorithm running on a smartphone or tablet. Such technology could enable cost-effective, precisely-targeted mental healthcare for hoarding disorder patients.

Professors Elise Morgan (ME, BME, MSE), Katya Ravid (MED) and Louis Gerstenfeld (MED) will test whether blocking a metabolic receptor associated with the growth of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) can help mitigate the destructive progression of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a debilitating disease characterized by joint pain and stiffness. In patients with RA, angiogenesis occurs in the membrane surrounding the joint in an uncontrolled way, thus advancing the destruction of joint tissues. If blocking this receptor proves successful, this research could lead to the development of a new class of pharmacological therapies for RA patients that, unlike current treatments, do not lose their effectiveness over time.

Associate Professor Srikanth Gopalan and Assistant Professor Emily Ryan (both ME, MSE) observe that power generation and energy storage devices such as fuel cells and lithium ion batteries have not found more widespread applications because the micro-structured electrodes they typically use do not provide sufficient energy capacity and power density to make these devices commercially attractive in a broader class of applications. To overcome this shortcoming, the researchers plan to develop a novel molten salt-based fabrication technique for nanostructured electrodes, which have the potential for unprecedented improvements in both energy capacity and power densities.

Professor Joyce Wong (BME, MSE) and Associate Professor Glynn Holt (ME) aim to perform a definitive proof-of-concept experiment to establish the potential for the use of microbubbles and ultrasound to noninvasively break blood clots. Clots are a major problem in the medical device industry because they can form on device surfaces, which can then lead to pulmonary embolisms if the clots end up in the lung or a stroke in the brain. Building on past studies by Wong, the researchers will conduct experiments aimed at developing a commercial “clot-busting” microbubble that binds to clots and breaks them in the presence of focused ultrasound.

A Robotic Approach to Engineering Living Cells

By gmcnevin
May 12th, 2015 in Faculty, Graduate Student Opportunities, Grants, News-CE, News-EP, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Research-EP, Uncategorized.

$4.5M NSF CPS Frontier Award to Fund BU-Led Project

By Mark Dwortzan

Liver-like tissue formation in human-induced pluripotent stem cells. The research team's robotic approach to engineering living cells could lead to technologies that transform human stem cells into tissues and organs for transplantation or drug design. (Image courtesy of the Weiss Lab, MIT)

Liver-like tissue formation in human-induced pluripotent stem cells. The research team’s robotic approach to engineering living cells could lead to technologies that transform human stem cells into tissues and organs for transplantation or drug design. (Image courtesy of the Weiss Lab, MIT)

Researchers have long sought to enable collections of living cells to perform desired tasks that range from decontaminating waterways to growing tissue in the lab, but their efforts have largely relied on trial and error. Now a team of scientists and engineers led by Boston University is developing a more systematic approach through a deft combination of synthetic biology and micro-robotics. Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $4.5 million Cyber-Physical Systems Program (CPS) Frontier grant, the researchers aim to engineer bacterial or mammalian cells to exhibit specified behaviors, and direct a fleet of micro-robots to corral the engineered cells into working together to perform desired tasks.

Drawing on experts in control theory, computer science, synthetic biology, robotics and design automation, the team includes Professor Calin Belta (ME, ECE, SE), the lead principal investigator, and Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics) from the BU College of Engineering; University of Pennsylvania Professor Vijay Kumar; and MIT Professor Ron Weiss, who directs the Institute’s Synthetic Biology Center; and members of SRI International.

“We came up with the idea of bringing robotics in to control in a smart way the emergence of desired behavior patterns among collections of engineered cells,” said Belta, who will develop algorithms to catalyze such behavior. “Our ultimate goal is to automate the entire process from engineering individual cells to controlling their global behavior, so that any user could submit requests from the desktop.”

If successful, the research could yield new insights in developmental biology, lead to greater standardization and automation in synthetic biology, and enable a diverse set of applications. These range from nanoscale robots that can manipulate objects at the micron (one-millionth of a meter) level to chip-scale technologies that transform stem cells into tissues and organs for human transplantation or drug design.

The team’s first main challenge is to advance a synthetic biology platform—what it calls a Bio-Design Automation (BDA) workflow system—that can predictably engineer cells to sense their environment, make decisions, and communicate with neighboring cells. To produce such “smart cells,” Densmore will use and enhance software he’s developed to specify, design and assemble gene networks (also known as gene circuits) with desired functions, and insert them in living cells.

The complex behaviors we wish to engineer are too difficult to manually specify and analyze,” said Densmore. “Design software makes this project manageable as well as formally captures the process so that it can be used in the future to enable new discoveries.”

The second challenge is to design micron-scale, mobile robots that can affect cells’ interactions so that they ultimately bring about a specified global behavior. Composed of organic and inorganic material and controlled by magnetic fields and light, each micro-robot interacts and communicates with individual cells at specified locations and times, implementing control strategies needed to achieve the desired global behavior. For example, the micro-robots could be controlled to optimize tissue formation from stem cells by triggering desired chemical reactions within the cells.

Finally, the researchers will test how well the micro-robots are able to direct the emergent, global behavior of collections of engineered bacterial cells and mammalian cells. They’ll attempt to form Turing patterns—dots and patches of varying sizes—in E. coli and hamster ovarian cells, and liver tissue from human stem cells. In the process, they will employ a magnetic manipulation system developed by SRI to control multiple robots with sub-millimeter precision.

Project leaders also plan to develop associated educational activities for high school students; lab tours and competitions for high school and undergraduate students; workshops, seminars and courses for graduate students; and specific initiatives for underrepresented groups. At BU, the Technology Innovation Scholars Program will develop hands-on design challenges and disseminate them in Boston schools.

Designed to address grand challenge research areas in science and engineering and limited to one or two multi-university teams per year, NSF CPS Frontier Awards support large-scale engineered systems built from, and dependent on, the seamless integration of computational algorithms and physical components.

See NSF press release about this research.

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ECE Senior Design Team Wins Top ENG Societal Impact Award

By gmcnevin
May 12th, 2015 in Alumni, Awards, Events, News-CE, News-EP, Recognition, Senior Design, Students, Undergraduate Programs, Undergraduate Student Opportunities.

Project Enhances Learning for Students with Disabilities

By Mark Dwortzan

Each student takes a card (an RFID tag), taps it on the device, and in response they hear a greeting from a teacher or parent.

Each student takes a card (an RFID tag), taps it on the device, and in response they hear a greeting from a teacher or parent.

The students who attend Boston’s William E. Carter School come with major mental and physical disabilities, making learning a challenge. Seeking to enhance the learning environment at the school, the principal, Marianne

Kopaczynski, came up with the idea to install automated announcing systems that would deliver a personalized greeting for each student upon taking a specific action when entering a room. Her rationale: the technology would help the students, who range in age from 12 to 22, to make associations between cause and effect, developing their cognitive skills while making them feel welcome.

ECE seniors Yicheng Pan, Sihang Zhou, Alexis Weaver, Sinan Eren and Jose Bautista with their award-winning card reader at the Carter School.

ECE seniors Yicheng Pan, Sihang Zhou, Alexis Weaver, Sinan Eren and Jose Bautista with their award-winning card reader at the Carter School.

Now an ECE senior design team has designed and built three such devices and installed them in the school, to the delight of students and teachers alike. Each student takes a card (an RFID tag), taps it on the device, triggering a greeting from a teacher or parent, such as “Hi [student’s name], welcome to Art.”

In recognition of this achievement, the College of Engineering has named the team as first-place winners of the annual Societal Impact Capstone Award, which honors outstanding senior design projects aimed at improving the quality of life. Team members are Yicheng Pan, Sihang Zhou, Alexis Weaver, Sinan Eren and Jose Bautista.

“What possibly could be more societal than to provide a system to make a student who struggles with severe physical and mental challenges just to smile, make them feel comfortable, and at the same time help them understand cause and effect?” said Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), who advised the team and runs the ECE Senior Design Program.

To develop the system, the ECE seniors drew on their knowledge and skills in remote sensing, circuit design, application and database development and user interface development. Adhering to all applicable safety standards and taking advantage of resources at the Engineering Product Innovation Center (EPIC), they produced custom handheld and wearable RFID tags for each student; a desktop application and database to enter each student’s identification information; and a rugged, durable, user-friendly interface that can be updated and maintained by the school.

“For our students to acquire a skill, repetition is needed in everything we do,” said Kevin Crowley, an instructor at the Carter School who was a 2015 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year semifinalist. “The technology is easy to use, helps establish a consistent routine and will benefit our school greatly.”

Two previous ECE senior design teams took on the principal’s challenge but were unsuccessful.

“This team succeeded where prior teams failed, even solving last-minute problems and working around the clock to fix them,” said Pisano. “They visited the school on many occasions and stand ready to provide support if any operational issues arise. We plan to do additional projects for the school next year.”

The 2015 Societal Impact Capstone Award second place winners are “Pressure Profile for Kidney Stone Removal” by Nikolaos Farmakidis, Alexandros Oratis, Syed Shabbar Shirazi, John Subasic and See Wong, who assisted a Massachusetts General Hospital physician in determining the most suitable surgical procedure for medium kidney stone removal.

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ECE Team Receives First Place Honors at Intel-Cornell Cup

By gmcnevin
May 12th, 2015 in Uncategorized.

Senior Design Project Automates Plant Cultivation

By Mark Dwortzan


GrowBox team members Sasha Rosca (CE), Jesse Fordyce (EE), Patrick Crawford (CE), Mark Barrasso (CE) and Ahmed Alfuwaires (EE) display their project at the Intel-Cornell Cup finals.


C.A.R.R. team members Jason Tow (CE), Luke Poitras (EE), Jeremy Bensabat (CE), Caroline Wu (EE) and Omar Rana (CE) with their project at the Intel-Cornell Cup finals.

GrowBox, an ECE senior design team that developed a low-cost, fully automated, mobile app-controlled, hydroponic plant growing box, was named a First Place winner at the fourth annual Intel-Cornell Cup, an undergraduate competition focused on innovative applications of embedded technology. Vying with 21 other finalists from across the country on May 1-2 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Team GrowBox emerged not only with one of seven $2,500 First Place awards but also the competition’s People’s Choice Award of $1,000.

Selected by ECE alumni judges as this year’s best ECE senior design project, GrowBox uses an iOS app that controls everything a plant needs to grow successfully. Stackable and suitable for small spaces, each unit senses the pH and other key aspects of a solution of water and nutrients, modifies the solution as needed, adjusts water and lighting, and uses image processing to track stages of plant growth so care can be optimized. The purpose of GrowBox is to minimize the time, space, energy and knowledge required to grow a plant, thus giving more people easy access to fresh, home-grown vegetables.

GrowBox competed against highly innovative entries that ranged from the $10,000 Grand Prize winner, an amphibious rover that supports search and discovery of survivors after a disaster, to a 3D-printed, smart prosthetic arm. All projects incorporated the latest Intel Galileo and Atom Development boards and sought to tackle challenges in healthcare, the environment, search and rescue, and other domains.

“The key innovative aspect of the project is the clever use of image processing technology as well as the modular design of the GrowBox,” said Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), the lead faculty member for the ECE Senior Design Project course.

“Going forward, we will be doing research as to how to turn our project into a successful business, and the prize money will be very helpful for that process,” said Sasha Rosca (CE), who came up with the idea for the project. The other team members are Ahmed Alfuwaires (EE), Mark Barrasso (CE), Patrick Crawford (CE) and Jesse Fordyce (EE).

Another ECE finalist, Team C.A.R.R. (Cyclist Alert Real-time Response), which notifies drivers of potential collisions with approaching cyclists, received one of seven Second Place awards.

More information about both ECE prizewinning teams is available here.

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Biological Design Center Comes to Life

By gmcnevin
May 12th, 2015 in Alumni, Faculty, Graduate Programs, Grants, News-CE, Recognition, Research, Research-CE, Uncategorized.

Finding better ways to produce clean energy, fight infection, attack cancer

By Sara Rimer, BU Research


Bioengineers Doug Densmore (from left), Chris Chen, Mo Khalil, and Wilson Wong will work together to pursue ways to regenerate tissue, reprogram bacteria to fight infection, and reengineer the body’s immune system to kill tumors. Photo by Janice Checchio

Imagine the state-of-the-art 21st-century life sciences and engineering lab. It would bring together forward-thinking researchers from the hottest fields in bioengineering. These scientists would combine genomic technologies like DNA sequencing and synthesis, 3-D printers, and robots to make new molecules, tissues, and entire organisms. They would tinker in pursuit of cutting-edge questions like these: How do you guide cells to regenerate and build new tissue? How do you reprogram bacteria to fight infection—or reengineer the body’s immune system to attack tumors so they disappear? How do you organize the circuitry inside a cell so it sends all the right signals for optimal health?

This is the lab that Christopher Chen, a College of Engineering Distinguished Professor and one of the world’s leading experts in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, began dreaming up last summer with three ENG faculty who are young stars in synthetic biology—Ahmad (Mo) KhalilDouglas Densmore, and Wilson W. Wong.

Now this dream is on its way to becoming a reality. The University is launching the new Biological Design Center (BioDesign Center), with Chen as the director and Khalil, an ENG biomedical engineering assistant professor and an Innovation Career Development Professor, as associate director. The other two core faculty members at the outset will be Densmore, an ENG electrical and computer engineering assistant professor and a Junior Faculty Fellow with the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, and Wong, an ENG biomedical engineering assistant professor and a recipient of a National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award.

Through advances in genomics and stem cell research, many of the molecular and cellular building blocks of life have been cataloged. A central challenge is to understand, control, and reengineer how these component parts fit together to bring about functional biological systems that define life and solve important societal problems, ranging from producing clean energy to fighting infection and attacking cancer. That is the fundamental quest that brought Chen, Khalil, Densmore, and Wong together and that will drive the new center.

“Unlocking the underlying design logic of biological systems will revolutionize our approach to medicine, energy, and the environment,” Chen says, describing their shared vision. “Spanning synthetic biology, cell and tissue assembly, and systems biology, the Biological Design Center is positioned to lead this revolution.”

Up until now, he says, fields such as synthetic biology and tissue engineering have arisen as separate disciplines. Synthetic biology involves designing and synthesizing genes, genetic and signaling networks, and genomes to predictably control cellular behavior. Tissue engineering involves trying to manipulate and combine cells and extracellular materials to induce the assembly of tissues.

“But we realized that even though these two fields may involve slightly different tools,” Chen says, “they belong under one roof.”

Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG, was immediately excited about the possibilities when Chen broached the group’s idea.

“This is a unique approach to using engineering principles to understand and exploit biology,” Lutchen says. “Very few people are using bioengineering techniques and methods to help discover fundamental principles that govern how biological systems work, especially on multiple levels, from the gene level up to multiple organs.”

Chen, who earned an MD at Harvard Medical School and a PhD at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, arrived at BU in 2013 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding director of the Center for Engineering Cells and Regeneration. Khalil, Densmore, and Wong had all been recruited to the University a few years earlier and were already collaborating.

“Chris is a very dynamic, visionary engineering scientist who is highly respected throughout the biomedical engineering community,” Lutchen says. “He brings a very deep sense of how to connect visionary research to medical and clinical questions. He has the depth and breadth of understanding the engineering challenges, the biological challenges, and the medical challenges as well as a sense of how things are connected between the gene level and the synthetic and systems biology level up to the level of multiple organ systems.”

Creating a community with no walls

Chen and his core faculty members will begin working together out of their existing labs in nearby buildings along Cummington Mall until they can move the BioDesign Center into laboratory space on several floors at what will be the Center for Integrated Life Sciences and Engineering (CILSE) building. Construction on the 610 Commonwealth Avenue building will begin late this spring and is expected to be completed within two years. Four to six new researchers—all exceptional innovators, says Chen—will be added to the center’s faculty over the next several years.

Housing the group at the CILSE, says Gloria Waters, University vice president and associate provost for research, “is a prime example of the goals of the new building—bringing together great scientists from different fields and breaking down the barriers to collaboration.”

Chen’s work spans tissue engineering and mechanobiology, which combines engineering and biology to study how physical forces and changes in cell or tissue mechanics affect development, physiology, and disease. He is a pioneer in the use of 3-D printing to help create organs using a patient’s own cells.

“One of the areas I’m interested in is regeneration,” Chen says. “How do you get cells not to go down the path of inflammation or dying or pathologic response? How do you guide them to go into a regenerative response where they might heal tissue?”

Khalil’s research involves using synthetic biology to understand and engineer genetic circuits that govern important cellular decisions and behaviors. Densmore, who is a Kern Faculty Fellow and the director of the Cross-Disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research group, automates the specification, design, assembly, and verification of synthetic biological systems using techniques from computer design and manufacturing. Wong’s research focuses on ways to reprogram the body’s immune system to target and kill tumors.

The idea for the center was born when Chen, Khalil, Densmore, and Wong got together over a working lunch early last summer. The chemistry among the group flowed.

“We were talking about what kind of science we each want to do,” Chen says. “We realized how much commonality we shared in terms of the general concept of trying to understand how biological systems operate through the process of trying to control them. We just developed different kinds of tools to manipulate these systems. At that point we realized we should be working in one space rather than doing things separately.”

“It was clear to me, within a few minutes of speaking to Chris,” says Khalil, “that he fundamentally shares the synthetic biology philosophy, which is a desire to understand the rules of building complex and functional biological systems, regardless of whether one uses molecular parts, cellular components, or other raw biological materials.”

To achieve their vision, the BioDesign Center will mix and match researchers from multiple academic fields, undergraduates, graduate students, and innovators from industry. Their lab will have no walls. They will create a community, sharing tools, resources, and ideas with scientists across the University and beyond. They will invent, discover, experiment.

“The idea of tinkering is key,” Khalil says.

They want the center to be a leader in reinventing biological education, engaging students by framing concepts around understanding the logic of how things work. And they want students to learn through hands-on work—by making things and doing things in the lab.

“Classically, biology in high schools and colleges is often taught as a facts-based field,” says Chen. “We think that being able to actively tinker with a biological system—for example, making cells do things they weren’t intended to do—is how one learns more deeply about how these systems work. And the process of being able to do an experiment to see if an idea makes sense is part of the learning cycle for us as scientists, but also for students. The center will be a place where that cycle will be fostered amongst students as well as researchers.”

Khalil says he views the BioDesign Center as an experiment and an opportunity to shape the future of synthetic biology. For all its excitement and vast potential, he says, “if this discipline looks largely the same in five years, then it will have been a failure.”

It is his opinion, he says, that “we will have succeeded when this engineering approach to biology is adopted by all life science researchers—both to understand living systems and to exploit biology as a new technology for addressing societal problems.”

A version of this article originally appeared on the BU Research website.


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Bellotti Wins Ignition Award For an Effective New Approach to Photon Detection

By Chelsea Hermond
April 23rd, 2015 in Awards, Faculty, Graduate Students, Recognition, Research.

The work promises to modernize a range of industries & common commercial products

By Gabriella McNevin

Adam Wichman (left), Professor Enrico Bellotti (middle), and Ben Pinkie (right)

Adam Wichman (left), Professor Enrico Bellotti (middle), and Ben Pinkie (right)

Professor Enrico Bellotti (ECE) and his PhD students Adam Wichman and Ben Pinkie won the Ignition Award for research in High sensitivity optical detectors in light starved applications.” The Boston University Office of Technology Development sponsors the Ignition Award to help launch promising new technologies into the marketplace.

Recipients of the Ignition Award are entered into a program. which supports further research and enables investigators to develop technology that will be well received in the consumer marketplace. “Ignition Awards help bring new technologies to a mature enough state” states the Boston University Technology Develop office, “where they can be licensed, spun off as a new venture, or create a new, non-profit social enterprise.”

The Ignition Award will help develop Bellotti’s infrared detector prototype. The technology is based on a novel architecture, originally invented by Adam Wichman, that overcomes the deficiencies of existing technologies. Dr. Bellotti has been interested in infrared detectors for several years, dating back to his investigations into the physics of avalanche photon detectors, for which he won an NSF Early Career Award in 2005.

Benjamin Pinkie and Adam Wichman joined Bellotti in 2012, and have been the driving forces in executing a fresh approach to image detection.

The team’s invention will lead to more sensitive infrared detectors that can operate using less power and at higher temperatures. As a result, they will not require the same cooling devices that are needed for the current generation of infrared cameras. This feature may enable novel applications especially for portable devices where weight and power consumption are at a premium.

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Robotic Guitar Player Wins College’s Fourth Imagineering Competition

By Chelsea Hermond
April 23rd, 2015 in Awards, Recognition.

By Mark Dwortzan

Evan Lowell and Mehmet Akbulut (both ME'16) demonstrating their robotic guitar player

Evan Lowell and Mehmet Akbulut (both ME’16) demonstrating their robotic guitar player

Close-up of guitar-playing robot system

Close-up of guitar-playing robot system


Osi Van Dessel (ME’17) with Scanner Probe robot prototype

Cithara — a robotic device that plays a guitar as well as, or better than, some humans — won the $3,000 first prize at the College of Engineering’s third annual Imagineering Competition.

Held April 17 at Ingalls Engineering Resource Center, the competition drew entries from seven undergraduate engineering students or student teams that applied creativity and entrepreneurial skills to advance technologies aimed at improving quality of life. Developed in the Singh Imagineering Lab and other on-campus facilities, this year’s projects were designed to do everything from untying your shoelaces to delivering timely information to your bathroom mirror.

Competitors presented their work before a panel of five judges—Associate Dean for Administration Richard Lally, Associate Professor Daniel Cole (ME), Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics), Coulter Program Director Greg Martin (BME) and Ali Shajii, president and CEO of Emphysys, a science and engineering consulting firm. The judges assessed each project for originality, ingenuity and creativity; quality of design and prototype; functionality; and potential to positively impact society.


Striking the Right Chord

To emulate how a human plays guitar, Cithara combines an off-the-shelf guitar (acoustic or electric) with two components powered by Arduino microcontrollers: a slider mechanism that presses frets at designated locations and a robotic arm that strums or plucks selected strings. Named for the Latin word for “guitar,” Cithara converts musical notes—input as tablature, which represents the precise fingering of the instrument within a specified timeframe—into machine instructions that encode the exact coordinates where the slider and arm should be positioned.

The two mechanical engineering juniors who designed the system, Mehmet Akbulut and Evan Lowell, obtained about 80 percent of their materials from the Imagineering Lab (where Akbulut works as a manager), and engineered some parts using a 3-D printer. Though neither plays the guitar, they came up with the idea when Akbulut received a guitar as a gift and sought to make good use of it.

“They’re good engineers, so what do they do?” said Shajii. “They build a robot around the guitar.” But Akbulut and Lowell envision Cithara as more than just a whimsical outlet for their engineering savvy.

“In the future we hope that instead of having to pay for a live artist, you could purchase this instrument and it would provide long-term, low-cost music,” said Lowell. “It’s also a great educational tool; we hope someone could use it to teach themselves guitar.”

The panel was particularly impressed by Akbulut and Lowell’s concept, approach, integrated hardware/software design, demo and PowerPoint presentation.

“This project combined mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering expertise with real-time control and precise timing requirements into one system,” said Densmore. “It was inherently demonstrable and fun, and poses numerous additional research questions.”


Probing, Augmenting and Controlling Our Surroundings

The second prize winner, Osi Van Dessel (ME’17), received $1,500 for his project, “Scanner Probe,” a tele-operated mobile robot that maps its surroundings using LIDAR, a technology that bounces pulsed laser light off of targeted objects to determine how far away they are. The Scanner Probe consists of a robot base, turret and two LIDAR sensor units that swivel back and forth to collect data and wirelessly transmit it to a computer, where a software program converts the data into a map in real time.

LIDAR is typically used in large-scale research and industrial applications from self-driving cars to satellite systems that can cost thousands to millions of dollars, but Van Dessel aims to make the technology cheaper and more accessible for home-based robotic applications.

“To have robots prevalent throughout society would require a big step in reducing the cost but still keeping the fidelity that a laser range-scanning unit can give you,” said Van Dessel. “Typically a laser range-finding unit is $10,000 per unit plus another $10,000 for the robot, or $20,000 for one complete system. Mine costs $350, and that was achievable through a few reductions in the requirements for my LIDAR system.”

Two teams tied for third prize, each receiving $1,000 for their efforts.

Benjamin Rawstron (CE/EE’18) was recognized for his project, a concept for a user-friendly, home automation network that enables users to monitor and control multiple household devices. With an overarching goal of configuring the network’s hardware so it can be updated anytime via the Internet, Rawstron designed a garage monitoring station that checks for safety and security threats such as high carbon monoxide levels and break-ins.

Timothy Geraghty (ME’16), Chris Ingalls (CAS/CS’15), Vani Patel (SMG/Marketing’16), Peter Tranoris (ME’16) and Anthony Tran (ME’16) were recognized for their project, Sensa X, a concept for a highly interactive, smart bathroom mirror that displays the weather, traffic, news, date/time, daily calendar entry and other information that’s useful to know during one’s morning wakeup routine. They plan to enable the info to be accessed by voice command and personalized in the presence of a user’s smartphone.

Other entries included a smartcard that provides secure access to a patient’s medical and health insurance records; an automated system for tying and untying shoelaces; and a crowdsourcing platform to help college students pay for their education.

Sponsored by John Maccarone (ENG’66), the competition was designed to reinforce the ideal of creating the Societal Engineer by spotlighting student efforts to design, build and test new technologies that promise to positively impact society.

Imagineering Lab programming is supported by the Kern Family Foundation and alumni contributions to the ENG Annual Fund.

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Students Doing Good, One App at a Time

By Chelsea Hermond
April 23rd, 2015 in Recognition, Students.

BU group develops technology for nonprofits

By Rich Barlow, BU Today

The nonprofit People Making a Difference runs charity events; Paavan Chopra (CAS'15) (left) and Brian Tan (ENG'17) are creating an app for the group to track volunteers' attendance and responsibilities.

The nonprofit People Making a Difference runs charity events; Paavan Chopra (CAS’15) (left) and Brian Tan (ENG’17) are creating an app for the group to track volunteers’ attendance and responsibilities.

Volunteers in the Global App Initiative student group develop mobile device apps for nonprofit groups, offering their services for free. Photos by Cydney Scott

Volunteers in the Global App Initiative student group develop mobile device apps for nonprofit groups, offering their services for free. Photos by Cydney Scott

Steering low-income students to college and on to better lives has become a kind of national mission. To that end, six BU students, laptops flipped open, huddle in a fluorescent-lit lounge at the Engineering Product Innovation Center. Their screens show the engineering product they’re innovating: pictures of a smartphone app listing steps in the college application process and notices of meetings related thereto.

The end users will be high schoolers at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius College Preparatory, which runs a program for “minority students and students who are going to be first-generation college-bound,” explains Eugene Kwan (ENG’17). An alum of the traditionally white and well-off school, he’s helping design the app, intended in part to replace St. Ignatius’ email alerts to its low-income students. “High school students aren’t very good at checking emails half the time,” he says, a problem licked by phone apps: “Everyone’s on their phone.”

Kwan, his team, and a dozen BU peers laboring this chilly Wednesday night at other tables are all with the Global App Initiative (GAI), a three-year-old BU student group founded to develop free mobile apps for nonprofit groups. St. Ignatius “helped me, so I just want to help them and give back,” says Kwan, who hopes to wrap the app later this year.

Another GAI team recently built an app listing public drinking fountains and businesses offering walk-in water in Boston for the sustainability group BeCause Water, which tries to discourage people from toting environmentally unfriendly plastic water bottles. Yet other students, working for North Carolina’s Freedom Family Foundation, are creating a mobile check-in and sign-up system for clients of the group, which provides counseling, health, and social services to at-risk families.

Those and other far-flung clients demonstrate the aggressive outreach members have done in the three years since GAI’s launch. Many GAI members were “very dedicated to nonprofits prior to Boston University” and have asked colleagues there if they need apps, says Veena Dali (CAS’16), vice president of client relations. “We just look online for nonprofits that could be interested,” says Dali, who then emails likely candidates. GAI leaders also advertise the group at the occasional nonprofit and tech conferences they’re asked to speak at.

No computer coding knowledge is required to join GAI, which offers workshops and online tutorials, or nontechies can opt for administrative duties. “I would say easily 90 percent of our club starts without any programming experience,” says GAI president Santiago Beltran (ENG’17).

“Knowing how to make apps that people use every day seems like a very valuable skill,” says Kwan, who learned coding through GIA. Jeff Kennedy (ENG’16), who worked last semester on the BeCause Water app, says that project was “about building your résumé and maybe doing something good for a local group.”

“For anyone who wants to learn more about app development, or just basic programming concepts, this is a really good way to get some exposure,” says Kennedy. “I would say in many ways better than some classes, because often classes can be very theoretical. You understand the theory behind the idea, but not how you actually construct a product.”

What’s in it for clients? “For a nonprofit like us, it’s extremely important that we can find affordable mobile app development work,” says Matt Thomas, chairman of the board of BeCause Water. (Beltran says commercially developed apps run thousands of dollars.) “You can’t beat the price” with GAI, Thomas says. “We’re very happy” with the quality of the Android phone app that Kennedy developed for his group, he adds.

The chance to do good drew neuroscience major Dali to GAI. “What really appealed to me was the fact that I got to work with nonprofits,” she says. Getting coding experience and the chance to work with fellow students in a non–class setting clinched the deal for her.

For Beltran, GAI tapped his twin passions for engineering and service work; during high school, the St. Louis resident created a nonprofit that brought technology to students. With GAI, he says, “you’re learning and using those skills—and you’re also using them for a really good cause.”

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TISP Gains Major Boost from AT&T

By Chelsea Hermond
March 27th, 2015 in Recognition, Students.

$145,000 Contribution Focuses on Improving High School Graduation Rates

By Jan Smith

Inspiration Ambassador Aniekan Inoyo (ME15, center) works with Dorchester MA high school students engineering a cellphone wireless business.

Inspiration Ambassador Aniekan Inoyo (ME15, center) works with Dorchester MA high school students engineering a cellphone wireless business.

The College of Engineering has received a $145,000 contribution from AT&T to create a two-year engineering and technology program for an urban high school population, and to document its impact on high school graduation rates.

The funding from AT&T will enable undergraduate Inspiration Ambassadors from the College’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program (TISP) to deliver classroom and after-school engineering activities at the Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS) in Boston beginning in September.

Loretta Walker, VP AT&T External Affairs for AT&T California with Dr. Gretchen Fougere, Associate Dean BU College of Engineering

Loretta Walker, VP AT&T External Affairs for AT&T California with Dr. Gretchen Fougere, Associate Dean BU College of Engineering

Gretchen Fougere, associate dean for Outreach and Diversity for the College of Engineering, noted, “This contribution validates the extraordinary vision driven by the College and likely impact of TISP. It will provide the resources to apply formal methods to measure our program’s success and to advance its national impact.”

Fougere, who leads TISP, noted, “We are creating a diverse pipeline of secondary students who are motivated to graduate from high school because of their raised appreciation and understanding of STEM and engineering. This contribution will enable us to provide all the benefits of TISP engineering outreach: fun design activities, after-school robotics, and summer enrichment and scholarships and deliver our relatable role-models to a partner high school in Boston. We continue to engage students of all backgrounds and abilities and both inspire and prepare them for post-secondary success.”

AT&T’s support is a part of AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature education initiative focused on high school success and career readiness. With an unwavering commitment to data-driven education outcomes, AT&T Aspire has impacted more than 1 million students since its launch in 2008.

“We’re committed to investing in efforts that prepare the next generation of Americans for success in the increasingly competitive global economy, and the mentorship provided by Boston University’s Technology Innovation Scholars Program is a perfect example of the enrichment that our local urban students need and deserve,” said Patricia Jacobs, president of AT&T New England. “We applaud BU and TISP for their passion for the issue and their proven track record of readying local students for success in college and in their careers. We’re particularly excited that Josiah Quincy students will have the chance to explore telecommunications projects with their BU mentors.”

The AT&T contribution will help measure the impact of this deep dive of TISP in one high school. A cohort of 9th grade students at JQUS will benefit from the program through 10th grade. JQUS students are a diverse and underserved population representative of many urban public schools where improving high school graduation rates and proficiency with math and science are concerns.

Richard Chang, co-headmaster at Josiah Quincy Upper School, said, “We are very excited to welcome Boston University’s Inspiration Ambassadors into our classrooms to make mathematics, science and engineering concepts come to life for our students. Engaging students in these real-world projects with college students of similar backgrounds will be significant motivators for them to focus on mathematics and science coursework and to attend college.”

TISP’s mission is to inspire and prepare a diverse workforce for 21st century technology-related fields. Each year, the program professionally trains and manages 50 select BU undergraduate engineers as “Inspiration Ambassadors,” who share their passion for and understanding of technology and engineering design with youth nationwide.

Inspiration Ambassadors visit middle and high school classrooms to provide information and experiences that demonstrate how engineers improve our quality of life and solve the problems that resonate with younger students. In Boston, the Ambassadors guide students in the engineering design process as teams innovate to create technologies associated with communications, energy, the environment and healthcare. In Boston area schools, for example, these design challenges relate to cellphone towers, wind turbines, fuel cells, robotics, and coding and app development. The technologies and engineering are derived from cutting-edge engineering research at BU and corporate supporters like AT&T.

The Inspiration Ambassadors, select undergraduate engineers majoring in biomedical, mechanical, electrical, or computer engineering, also mentor many after-school FIRST ® robotics teams, creating competitive robots in a short design cycle. The College has a rich partnership with FIRST®, with Dean Kamen and John Abele on the Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board, and scholarships and TISP available to FIRST ® participants.

Validation and Impact Research
Since its launch in 2011, the Inspiration Ambassadors have reached more than 13,200 young people in 26 states and six countries. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the program has had a direct and favorable impact on underprivileged youth, influencing many to seek out STEM coursework in high school, to graduate from high school, and even to pursue and secure university placements and scholarships. Five have received full scholarships for study at BU’s College of Engineering or other schools. Several of the former high school students reached and mentored are now Ambassadors themselves.

The AT&T grant will enable the program to empirically measure and document that impact, while also providing a test case with a dedicated cohort of students over two years. Lasting impact will drive further scaling and nationwide replication. The College has a comprehensive approach to creating a continuous flow of Societal Engineers, which is now endorsed and supported by $375,000 in gifts and pledges from esteemed ENG alumni, such as Girish Navani and John J. Tegan III, and the Argosy, Ingalls and Kern Family Foundations. The grant from AT&T comes on the heels of other recent corporate support from NASA and Accenture. The combined funding will go far to advance the College’s mission to create a continuous flow of diverse graduates ready for college STEM majors and the workforce.

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